How could the Servant king who had the deck so utterly stacked in his favor, botch the play?
The short version: I don’t know for sure.
The long version: Here are some possible rocks to look under.
There were two major incidents in Saul’s life where God knocked him down. The first was right at the outset of his reign. Failure to wait for Samuel to offer the sacrifice cost him the eternal dynasty God absolutely planned on giving him.
Then later, when he botched the Amalekite project God rejected him completely.
Let’s look at the first one since it is such a jumble of weirdness.
Saul was crowned king, but the Philistines had a stranglehold on everything that mattered in his non-kingdom. They must have heard about the newly crowned king, but since only Saul and Jonathan had any weapons, their Security Council meeting recommended ignoring the upstart.
Saul raised an army of 3,000 men and then did nothing. He kept a couple thousand with him and sent Jonathan to another community with the other thousand.
The Philistine’s dozed. Saul waited. Jonathan got bored and in his rebellious boredom, he attacked a Philistine garrison (successfully), thereby causing an international incident.
The Philistine Security Council unanimously decided that doing something quite impressive was in order, and believe me, they were capable of being impressive.
Rookie though he was at foreign policy, Saul knew this was no time for negotiations, so he summoned all Israel to come help. Shortly thereafter, a bunch of loyal farmers showed up with an assortment of clubs.
They took one look at the impressive Philistine army and left about as fast as they had come. Some were so terrified they fled the country and sought asylum across the river, since it looked like the impressive Philistine army was about to make Israel into an unimpressive footnote in world history.
Saul CLEARLY remembered the command from Samuel that when this situation occurred, he was to wait for seven days, then Samuel would come, offer a sacrifice and the war could start.
Saul’s army was pathetic to begin with, and after waiting one long week, it was melting faster than an ice cream cone in Texas in the summer of 2011. Saul certainly did not want to go to war without the favor of God, but Samuel had not come and things were getting pretty grim.
So in one of those remarkable incidents of twisted logic, Saul decided that in order to get God’s blessing on the attack he would have to disobey God’s direct command and offer an illicit sacrifice.
Samuel showed up just then and announced the horrible consequences of Saul’s choices then left, leaving no blessing from God for the army.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountain, Jonathan launched yet another unauthorized assault on the Philistines. It also was successful and God partnered with him by sending a mild earthquake into all the Philistine army units. God then added a double dose of panic which (mysteriously) caused them to begin killing each other.
The Israelite army suddenly found some courage and came running to help the Philistines extirpate themselves.
In the midst of this, Saul issued an edict that no one could eat anything until he had been avenged on his enemies (Huh?! “His enemies?” What happened to God’s enemies?). Everyone obeyed except Jonathan who was AWOL as usual and didn’t hear the command. He ate.
At the end of the day, God indicated displeasure with the army. Saul promised to kill the offender. God pegged Jonathan. He blamed his dad for making a dumb rule. The people mutinied against Saul and he backed down, allowing Jonathan to live because after all, he was the hero of the day because God had partnered with him in his lawlessness against his dad and God.
Talk about a cheesy story line! Where in this goofy mess is that thread that will take us back to THE pivot point?
It is tempting to write it all off as just Saul’s fear of man, and that certainly is a factor that crops up repeatedly in his story, but I think there is more here.
I wonder first of all about God’s motive in intervening on their behalf.
Jonathan was out of line. No one was supposed to do anything until Samuel cleared it. Saul offered his own sacrifice which was wrong, but where do you put Jonathan’s total disregard for the command of God? He did not even pretend to care or notice what God had ordained.
Yet we have God cheerfully partnering with a disgraced king and a disgraceful son to rout the Philistines. The easily visible causes do not exactly line up with the verifiable effect. Really odd.
But what if we go back one more notch. Why did God have Samuel tell Saul on the first day they met that he had to wait for seven days, at Gilgal (a highly significant place), for Samuel to come and offer a sacrifice? This is not a regular procedure that God used with other people in other situations.
That is another oddity.
And why were they to assemble at Gilgal? That is down by the Jordan River, far from Gibeah of God in the highlands, where Saul lived.
And what about the panic attack leading to Philistines killing Philistines. Why did the earthquake not cause panic among the Hebrews? And why did the panic cause instant civil war instead of simply headlong flight?
Speaking of panic, remember back when Israel wanted a king? Samuel assembled all Israel and the Philistines objected violently to the aforementioned assembly. The Israelites panicked, Samuel prayed, God thundered, and it was the Philistines turn to panic while God and the Israelites chased them.
In addition to that, when the Ark took an inappropriate tour of significant Philistine cities, God judge two of those cities with abject panic.
Now we have a pattern to go with our oddity. What’s up with God, the Philistines and panic? Clearly panic is God’s tool of choice for dealing with the Philistines. Uh, why?
Well, let’s go fishing. What do we know about the Philistines? They were one of the strongest remaining original inhabitants of the land. They were redemptive gift of Teacher. They were big into shame and pride. Whenever they defeated Israel, it was more an issue of national honor than booty in war.
While many nations made an issue of overcoming the God of Israel, the Philistines seem to make a special point of framing every victory over an Israelite army as a triumph of their gods over Israel’s God.
Given that, here is a possible framework for what happened.
I wonder if panic was God’s weapon of choice against the Philistines as a way of humiliating them? Clearly in every case the Philistines knew that the panic was the result of the God of the Israelites taking up offense for them. Whether it was Goliath or some lesser skirmish, they never showed any significant respect for the Israelite army, other than when David was in charge. But time and again, they met Israel’s God and were humiliated.
So that is a plausible explanation for the panic (although not convincing enough for me to argue with you if you have a better one).
What about Gilgal? For sure it was one of the communities on Samuel’s circuit, but there were three others, all closer to Saul’s home town, and to Samuel’s. Why pick that one? I wonder if it has to do with the fact that it was there that Israel got circumcised after crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land.
Notice what God said after the circumcision of the desert generation: “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” Joshua 5:9 NAS
Hmm . . . reproach. Shame. Roughly in the same neighborhood of ideas.
I wonder if that land was particularly designed by God to be a place where shame of past bondage was washed away, and the dignity of being sons in covenant was imparted. I always wondered why the circumcision took place there.
It seemed to me that doing it on the east side of the Jordan would have made more sense. You know, clean them up before they come into the land. But God let them cross the Jordan and be within reach of Jericho before He forced the issue.
So was the seven day delay just a mechanical thing to puff up the self-confidence of the Philistines and to reduce the self-confidence of the Israelites? If so, it certainly worked. They had some arrogant things to say about the Hebrews just before Jonathan attacked.
It could be.
But there is an interesting “coincidence” in the original Gilgal event. Remember that the Commander of the Lord’s Army told Joshua to do a seven day circumlocution of Jericho?
There were seven days of unnatural behavior in each case before engaging the enemy. Again, this is not standard operating procedure for God. But both times the Israelites were gathered at Gilgal, a seven day delay was ordered by the Master Strategist.
Alright. We have a spaghetti sandwich here — more loose ends than meat. Let’s pull them together into a straw man and see what it sounds like.
Saul, the Servant, was called by God to cleanse the land and the culture so that God would enjoy making His habitation there. The Philistines had profound contempt for Yahweh so God needed them humiliated instead of simply defeated.
That means that the battle had to be supernatural, so long before there was an incident, God decreed through Samuel to Saul that the engagement should be in the vicinity of Gilgal because that land had a special calling as a place of removing shame after a season of prolonged bondage to an enemy culture.
What if we say it was a place where a new generation could come into sonship? This would be consistent with Saul’s job being to make a place where God wants to come. He has shown a certain recalcitrance to associating intimately with a community of slaves, so this could be another angle to the whole battle location.
In addition to the treasure in the land, God leveraged His secret tool of a seven day dynamic specific to that land (which is still a mystery to us thousands of years later). Hence the command to wait and then sacrifice.
The net result was a non-military victory over the Philistines as God humiliated them while defeating them, allowing the newly graduated sons to enjoy pretending they were part of this decisive victory.
Hmm. . . this has some possibilities but doesn’t answer all the questions. Let’s leave that straw man leaning against the wall while we build two or three more and see what the end result looks like.
Copyright August 2011 by Arthur Burk